Wedged between Tibet to the north, Nepal to the west and Bhutan to the east, Sikkim is an isolated little Indian state high in the Himalayas. Until as recently as 1975, it was an independent kingdom, ruled by chogyals (kings) since the mid-17th century. Dominated by Kanchenjunga – the world’s third-highest mountain, at 8,586 metres – the state is defined by its rugged terrain, lofty peaks and mountaintop monasteries. With a rich ethnic fabric comprising Lepchas, Sikkim’s original inhabitants, Bhutias of Tibetan descent, and various Nepali communities, Sikkim is a unique blend of languages, cuisines and customs.
For many, the state’s allure lies in its magnificent high-altitude treks. For others, the draw lies in natural vistas and the charm of a relatively offbeat Indian experience. Either way, Gangtok, the capital in the south-east, is a good base to start your explorations. While it’s a modern city, with trendy cafes and fashion-forward locals, age-old customs still prevail. Guests are welcomed with traditional khada (silk scarves) and often cups of salty butter tea.
It’s easy to spend a few days in the fast-expanding, cosmopolitan city, delving into its Tibetan roots, walking the pedestrianised promenades and sampling the unique blend of cuisines. Foreigners need a restricted area permit to visit, which can be obtained online.
A comfortable bed
Set on a hill with gardens overlooking the sports stadium, the opulent Elgin Nor-Khill was formerly the royal guesthouse of the chogyal, built in 1932 to house visiting dignitaries and heads of state. With decadent furnishings and a grand marble lobby crammed with curios from the royal household, the heritage property retains much of its stately charm. Rooms are in traditional Sikkimese style, with teak flooring and views of the mountain range. Double rooms cost from 9,450 rupees (Dh518).
Netuk House is in the midst of the action, a stone's throw from the busy MG Marg street. The family home of the Denzongpas, prominent advisers to the former chogyal, the boutique hotel offers a homely experience in a luxurious setting. Bhutia furniture, intricately painted balconies in traditional Sikkimese style, old family portraits and a rustic wooden dining area with home-cooked meals lend an ethnic touch. On a clear day, Kanchenjunga is visible from the expansive terrace. Doubles cost from 4,500 rupees (Dh247).
Find your feet
Sikkim’s history is chequered with stories of monks, kings and communities. To get your bearings and understand the culture, head to the Institute of Tibetology – a museum housing relics including intricate thangkas (paintings), weapons and scrolls. An informative timeline traces the history of the chogyals from Phuntsok Namgyal, the first king, and gives background on the Bhutia and Lepcha. Farther down the road is the Do-Drul Chorten – an impressive whitewashed stupa with a gilded tower.
Meet the locals
At MG Marg, a popular pedestrianised stretch in the town centre that’s the main shopping area, locals and tourists congregate to dine, meet friends, shop, people-watch and enjoy the crisp mountain air. Shops selling trendy fashions stand alongside stalls with traditional Tibetan garments; bright cafes draw young locals, while tourists prefer to frequent traditional restaurants for local Tibetan and Nepali fare. Get a window table at a coffee shop – Baker’s Café is a good choice – and observe life.
Book a table
While momos, thukpa and Chinese cuisine are ubiquitous, experiment with unique local flavours. Tangerine at the Chumbi Residency is a nice spot for dinner, with vermilion interiors, warm lights and wooden furnishings. The cuisine includes rare Sikkimese specialities such as nettle stew and fresh bamboo shoots cooked in local spices, along with Chinese and Indian fare. A meal for two costs about 800 rupees (Dh44).
Nepali and Sikkimese set meals with rice, vegetables, meat curry, lentils and pickles are best at Absolute Demazong (Hungry Jack Complex), a large restaurant with cane interiors known for its local food. Bhutanese dishes such as datshi are also on the menu, along with Tibetan and Chinese options. Start with the momos, which come with a variety of fillings. Set meals cost 500 rupees (Dh27).
For a laid-back coffee, The Coffee Shop, in New Market just off MG Marg, is a brightly lit cafe with a balcony overlooking the street. There are Italian items on the menu, along with a range of all-day breakfasts to cater to different tastes, including local options. A meal costs 500 rupees (Dh27).
MG Marg and the adjoining New Market are crammed full of curio shops selling paintings, woodcarvings and delicately patterned crockery. For handicrafts, head to the Handloom and Handicraft Emporium, where you will find carpets, handwoven fabrics and other traditional items. You can also visit the workshops to see artisans at work.
What to avoid
Monsoon season, from July to September, is best avoided.
Rumtek Monastery is among Sikkim’s largest, about an hour’s drive from Gangtok. Set in a large compound, the daily rituals include monks chanting, and are open to visitors.
Jet Airways flies from Abu Dhabi to Bagdogra, via New Delhi, from Dh2,163 return. From Bagdogra, it's a four-hour drive to Gangtok.